A flowering bulb well known to many gardeners, is the miniature daffodil Narcissus Tete-a-Tete. This lovely unassuming flower of late winter and early spring is a welcome sight soon after winter’s cold has passed. It is an intriguing plant in many regards, not the least of which is its somewhat uncertain origin.
Narcissus Tete-a-Tete (or more aptly N. ‘Tête à Tête’) is truly a miniature daffodil, standing 20-30 cm tall at most. Growth usually starts in March, soon after the worst of winter is over. By the middle of March and into early April the flowers open, some singly, but often in pairs (hence its name, meaning a
conversation between two people). Occasionally three or even four flowers will be borne per stalk. They are presented just above the leaves and resist toppling over, even in high winds – two excellent attributes for a daffodil.
Each flower is small and dainty, no more than 3-4 cm across. The corona is long relative to the outmost ring of tepals, thus qualifying it as a trumpet type daffodil. It is bright orange. The tepals (sepals + petals) are a brilliant lemon yellow. While these tend to lay in a more of less flat ring, some can recurve backward a bit, revealing one of its parent plants, N. cyclamineus. N. Tete-a-Tete flowers are long lasting and make good subjects for cut arrangements.
N. Tete-a-tete has typical tunicate bulbs, much like other daffodil bulbs, but they are bit smaller than most. They grow many offsets and plants form large clumps in a short time. These can be left intact and they will continue flowering well for many years.
N. Tete-a-Tete is a known allotriploid hybrid – that is a complicated way of saying it has at least two ancestral parents and an extra set of chromosomes compared to most other similar plants. Without a doubt the seed parent was the primary hybrid between N. cyclamineus and N. tazetta ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’, called N. ‘Cyclataz’, an heirloom daffodil variety. What is somewhat unknown is the pollen parent – it either was a crossing with another N. ‘Cyclataz’ or back onto N. cyclamineus. Based on genetic studies, it is well established that both parent species’ chromosomes are present, but since the seed set was spontaneous, we’ll never know the other parent for sure.
Since it does not easily fall within the 11 divisions of other daffodil types, it is classified as division 12, miscellaneous hybrids. It is perhaps the best known of all miniature daffodil hybrids, and very popular in the bulb trade.
Naming and genetics aside, this is one fantastic miniature daffodil. There is nothing negative I can say about it. It tends to flower a bit earlier than most other daffodils, just as most spring crocus are fading. The flowers are generously produced, even on clumps that haven’t been divided for years. They open just above the tops of the leaves, never buried within them.
My plants have grown for years now with little to no help from me. All I do is clean up their bed in the spring of fallen leaves and weeds. I do not fertilize them. They are in a fair amount of sun, up to 5 hours a day while in growth. By mid summer, after they have gone dormant, their bed is shaded by brugmansia bushes that grow back after being burned to the ground during winter. This doesn’t seem to bother them (or other flowering bulbs in this area). Like other daffodils, it will endure light shade while in growth, but prefers at least some sunshine.
N. Tete-a-Tete seems quite adaptable to most soils, accepting a pH range from somewhat acidic to a bit sweet. I grow them in Kyushu’s native volcanic loam with no amendments and they seem to thrive. They are said to grow well in heavy soils provided they don’t become water logged.
Given their dwarf habit, they make great container plants as well. They are easy to force flower, up to a month or more before the normal flowering period. If you do force them, don’t be surprised if they sulk for a couple seasons after.
Propagation is done by division. Any time after the leaves die down is fine. Unlike other daffodil bulbs, it is not necessary to divide clumps on a routine basis in order to keep the flower count high. Large clumps seem to flower on and on regardless – much like N. tazetta. Having said that, dividing clumps is an advantage and will increase your stock. N. Tete-a-Tete is a sterile plant and therefore cannot be used in making new hybrids.
Another nice feature of this plant is its temperature tolerance. In my area summers are blisteringly hot, over 30 C daily for two or more months without a break, and yet they thrive. Conversely, while dormant the bulbs are amazing cold resistant as well. USDA cold hardiness zones 4-8 are indicated for this daffodil, but they can be pushed to zone 9 where winters are on the cool side (e.g., coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest in the USA, the warmer part of the British Isles, and southern Japan). If your winters average 10 C or lower for two months, that should be adequate.
Here is another flowering bulb that is a must have, and unless you live in a very cold winter area or the tropics, you can grow it with little effort. You can’t ask much more from a plant!